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Exploring Malick's Beautiful 'New World'


Few movie directors of real stature have made careers by coming out of hiding as rarely as Terrence Malick. He made "Badlands" in 1973, and in the 32 years since then he has only released two other pictures, "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line." Well, Bob Mondello says that Malick's latest film, "The New World," is a reflection of his career, languid in pacing with beauty in every frame.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The camera sees the coast of what will someday be Virginia with the eyes of the English settlers who arrive there in 1607. The banks of the James River are dense with forests and windblown grasses. Captain John Smith, who arrives in chains, sees it as a fresh Eden, a place of forgiveness and possibility and it's easy to see why. But misunderstandings develop with a tribe of what the settlers call naturals and when Smith is sent to negotiate...

(Soundbite of fight)

MONDELLO: ...this Eden turns treacherous.

(Soundbite of fight)

MONDELLO: Deep in a swamp he is set upon by warriors, overpowered and brought before their king, who orders him killed.

(Soundbite of "The New World")

Mr. COLIN FARRELL: (As John Smith) At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me.

MONDELLO: She is the king's daughter, played by a radiant 14-year-old named Q'Orianka Kilcher. She begs her father to spare Smith's life, which he does, hoping to learn something about the intentions of these strangers before they leave. What he learns, of course, is that they have no intention of leaving. But that comes later. What comes first is a meeting of cultures: Englishmen looking for gold and a fresh start and Native American naturals who live up to that name, a sharing of unfamiliar ways and unfamiliar languages.

(Soundbite of "The New World")

Q'ORIANKA KILCHER: (As Pocahontas) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. FARRELL: (As Smith) Eyes.


MONDELLO: Director Terrence Malick based his story on the legend of Pocahontas, a name, incidentally, that no one says aloud in the film. Malick has invented a conventional, bittersweet and presumably fictional love affair between his leading lady and Captain Smith as a prelude to her marriage to another man and a voyage to England.

But story isn't really central in this rapturously romantic movie. The filmmaker is exploring the wonder of discovery with dialogue that is mostly whispered and inner thoughts that, more often than not, are uttered in voiceovers. This is a device Malick has used in all his pictures, which makes them ruminative and thoughtful and has a lot to do with why they're noted more for their moods than for what happens in them.

Here the camera views people almost exactly the way it does the landscape. Light slanting through a cathedrallike canopy of trees, water splashing onto painted faces, a profusion of browns and greens and reds with the director overscoring it all with the buzzing of insects and a humidity so thick you can feel it. Malick is a brilliant creator of ambience, and here it very nearly replaces story. Observation is all in his new world. The Europeans in their armor are as alien in Virginia as the naturals are walking through the sculpted hedges of manor houses outside London. The worlds aren't new; the eyes viewing them are. And the director's gift is to let us see what they see. I'm Bob Mondello.


SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.